Let’s not get carried away by self-driving cars and the sharing economy: they won’t make Smart Cities better places to live, work and play

(Cities either balance or create tension between human interaction and transport; how will self-driving cars change that equation?)

(Cities either balance or create tension between human interaction and transport; how will self-driving cars change that equation? With thanks and apologies to Tim Stonor for images and inspiration)

Will we remember to design cities for people and life, enriched by interactions and supported by transport? Or will we put the driverless car and the app that hires it before the passenger?

I’m worried that the current level of interest in self-driving cars as a Smart City initiative is a distraction from the transport and technology issues that really matter in cities.

It’s a great example of a technology that is attracting significant public, private and academic investment because many people will pay for the resulting product in return for the undoubted benefits to their personal safety and convenience.

But will cities full of cars driving themselves be better places to live, work and play than cities full of cars driven by people?

Cities create value when people in them transact with each other: that often requires meeting in person and/or exchanging goods – both of which require transport. From the medieval era to the modern age cities have in part been defined by the tension between our desire to interact and the negative effects created by the size, noise, pollution and danger of the transport that we use to do so – whether that transport is horses and wagons or cars and vans.

A number of town planners and urban designers argue that we’ve got that balance wrong over the past half century with the result that many urban environments are dominated by road traffic and infrastructure to the extent that they inhibit the human interactions that are at the heart of the social and economic life of cities.

What will be the effect of autonomous vehicles on that inherent tension – will they help us to achieve a better balance, or make it harder to do so?

(Traffic clogging the streets of Rome. Photo by AntyDiluvian)

(Traffic clogging the streets of Rome. Photo by AntyDiluvian)

Autonomous vehicles are driven in a different way than the cars that we drive today, and that creates certain advantages: freeing people from the task of driving in order to work or relax; and allowing a higher volume of traffic to flow in safety than currently possible, particularly on national highway networks. And they will almost certainly very soon become better at avoiding accidents with people, vehicles and their surroundings than human drivers.

But they are no smaller than traditional vehicles, so they will take up just as much space. And they will only produce less noise and pollution if they are electric vehicles (which in turn merely create pollution elsewhere in the power system) or are powered by hydrogen – a technology that is still a long way from large-scale adoption.

And whilst computer-driven cars may be safer than cars driven by people, they will not make pedestrians and cyclists feel any safer: people are more likely to feel safe in proximity with slow moving cars with whose drivers they can make eye contact, not automated vehicles travelling at speed. The extent to which we feel safe (which we are aware of) is often a more important influence on our social and economic activity than the extent to which we are actually safe (which we may well not be accurately aware of).

The tension between the creation of social and economic value in cities through interactions between people, and the transport required to support those interactions, is also at the heart of the world’s sustainability challenge. At the “Urban Age: Governing Urban Futures” conference in New Delhi,  November 2014, Ricky Burdett, Director of the London School of Economics’ Cities Program, described the graph below that shows the relationship between social and economic development, as measured by the UN Human Welfare Index, plotted left-to-right; and ecological footprint per person, which is shown vertically, and which by and large grows significantly as social and economic progress is made.  (You can watch Burdett’s presentation, along with those by other speakers at the conference, here).

the relationship between social and economic development, as measured by the UN Human Welfare Index, plotted left-to-right and ecological footprint per person, which is shown vertically

(The relationship between social and economic development, as measured by the UN Human Welfare Index, plotted left-to-right and ecological footprint per person, which is shown vertically)

The dotted line at the bottom of the graph shows when the ecological footprint of each person passes beyond that which our world can support for the entire population. Residents of cities in the US are using five times this limit already, and countries such as China and Brazil, whose cities are growing at a phenomenal rate, are just starting to breach that line of sustainability.

Tackling this challenge does not necessarily involve making economic, social or personal sacrifices, though it certainly involves making changes. In recent decades, a number of politicians such as Enrique Penalosa, ex-Mayor of Bogota, international influencers such as  Joan Clos, Exective Director of UN-Habitat  (as reported informally by Tim Stonor from Dr. Clos’s remarks at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference at the Crystal, London in 2012), and town planners such as Jeff Speck and Charles Montgomery have explored the social and economic benefits of cities that combine low-carbon lifestyles and economic growth by promoting medium-density, mixed-use urban centres that stimulate economies with a high proportion of local transactions within a walkable and cyclable distance.

Of course no single idea is appropriate to every situation, but overall I’m personally convinced that this is the only sensible general conception of cities for the future that will lead to a happy, healthy, fair and sustainable world.

There are many ways that technology can contribute to the development of this sort of urban economy, to complement the work of urban designers and town planners in the physical environment. For example, a combination of car clubs, bicycle hire schemes and multi-modal transport information services is already contributing to a changing culture in younger generations of urban citizens who are less interested in owning cars than previous generations.

ScreenHunter_07 Jun. 03 23.49

(Top: Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, where cyclists and pedestrians on one of the districts main thoroughfares are given priority over cars waiting to turn onto the road. Bottom: Buford Highway, Atlanta, a 2 kilometre stretch of 7-line highway passing through a residential and retail area with no pavements or pedestrian crossings)

And this is a good example that it is not set in stone that cities must inevitably grow towards the high ecological footprints of US cities as their economies develop.

The physicist Geoffrey West’s work is often cited as proof that cities will grow larger, and that their economies will speed up as they do so, increasing their demand for resources and production of waste and pollution. But West’s work is “empirical”, not “deterministic”: it is simply based on measurements and observations of how cities behave today; it is not a prediction for how cities will behave in the future.

It is up to us to discover new services and infrastructures to support urban populations and their desire for ever more intense interactions in a less profligate way. Already today, cities diverge from West’s predictions according to the degree to which they have done so. The worst examples of American sprawl such as Houston, Texas have enormous ecological footprints compared to the standard of living and level of economy activity they support; more forward-thinking cities such as Portland, Vancouver, Copenhagen and Freiberg are far more efficient (and Charles Montgomery has argued that they are home to happier, healthier citizens as a consequence).

However, the role that digital technologies will play in shaping the economic and social transactions of future cities and that ecological footprint is far from certain.

On the one hand modern, technologies make it easier for us to communicate and share information wherever we are without needing to travel; but on the other hand those interactions create new opportunities to meet in person and to exchange goods and services; and so they create new requirements for transport. As technologies such as 3D printingopen-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation make it possible to carry out traditionally industrial activities at much smaller scales, an increasing number of existing bulk movement patterns are being replaced by thousands of smaller, peer-to-peer interactions created by transactions in online marketplaces. We can already see the effects of this trend in the vast growth of traffic delivering goods that are purchased or exchanged online.

I first wrote about this “sharing economy“, defined by Wikipedia as “economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data and talent”, two years ago. It has the potential to promote a sustainable economy through matching supply and demand in ways that weren’t previously possible. For example, e-Bay CEO John Donahoe has described the environmental benefits created by the online second-hand marketplace extending the life of over $100 billion of goods since it began, representing a significant reduction in the impact of manufacturing and disposing of goods. But on the other hand those benefits are offset by the carbon footprint of the need to transport goods between the buyers and sellers who use them; and by the social and economic impact of that traffic on city communities.

There are many sharing economy business models that promote sustainable, walkable, locally-reinforcing city economies: Casserole Club, who use social media to introduce people who can’t cook for themselves to people who are prepared to volunteer to cook for others; the West Midlands Collaborative Commerce Marketplace, which uses analytics technology to help it’s 10,000 member businesses work together in local partnerships to win more than £4billion in new contracts each year, and Freecyle and other free recycling networks which tend to promote relatively local re-use of goods and services because the attraction of free, used goods diminishes with the increasing expense of the travel required to collect them.

(Packages from Amazon delivered to Google’s San Francisco office. Photo by moppet65535)

But it takes real skill and good ideas to create and operate these business models successfully; and those abilities are just those that the MIT economists Andy McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson and Michael Spence have pointed out can command exceptional financial rewards in a capitalist economy. What is there to incent the people who posess those skills to use them to design business models that achieve balanced financial, social and environmental outcomes, as opposed to simply maximising profit and personal return?

The vast majority of systematic incentives act to encourage such people to design businesses that maximise profit. That is why many social enterprises are small-scale, and why many successful “sharing economy” businesses such as Airbnb and Uber have very little to do with sharing value and resources, but are better understood as a new type of profit-seeking transaction broker. It is only personal, ethical attitudes to society that persuade any of us to turn our efforts and talents to more balanced models.

This is a good example of a big choice that we are taking in millions of small decisions: the personal choices of entrepreneurs, social innovators and business leaders in the businesses they start, design and operate; and our personal choices as consumers, employees and citizens in the products we buy, the businesses we work for and the politicians we vote for.

For individuals, those choices are influenced by the degree to which we understand that our own long term interests, the long term interests of the businesses we run or work for, and the long term interests of society are ultimately the same – we are all people living on a single planet together – and that that long-term alignment is more important than the absolute maximisation of short-term financial gain.

But as a whole, the markets that invest in businesses and enable them to operate and grow are driven by relatively short-term financial performance unless they are influenced by external forces.

In this context, self-driving cars – like any other technology – are strictly neutral and amoral. They are a technology that does have benefits, but those benefits are relatively weakly linked to the outcomes that most cities have set out as their objectives. If we want autonomous vehicles, “sharing economy” business models or the Internet of Things to deliver vibrant, fair, healthy and happy cities then more of our attention should be on the policy initiatives, planning and procurement frameworks, business licensing and taxation regimes that could shape the market to achieve those outcomes. The Centre for Data Innovation, British Standards Institute, and Future Cities Catapult have all published work on this subject and are carrying out  initiatives to extend it.

(Photograph by Martin Deutsche of plans to redevelop Queen Elizabeth Park, site of the 2012 London Olympics. The London Legacy Development’s intention, in support of the Smart London Plan, is “for the Park to become one of the world’s leading digital environments, providing a unique opportunity to showcase how digital technology enhances urban living. The aim is to use the Park as a testing ground for the use of new digital technology in transport systems and energy services.”)

Cities create the most value in the most sustainable way when they encourage transactions between people that can take place over a walkable or cyclable distance. New technologies and new technology-enabled business models have great potential to encourage both of those outcomes, but only if we use the tools available to us to shape the market to make them financially advantageous to private sector enterprise.  We should be paying more attention to those tools, and less attention to technology.

Advertisements

Three mistakes we’re still making about Smart Cities

(David Willets, MP, Minister for Universities and Science, launches the UK Government’s Smart Cities Forum)

(I was asked this week to contribute my view of the present state of the Smart Cities movement to the UK Government’s launch of it’s Smart Cities forum, which will report to the Government’s Information Economy Council. This article is based on my remarks at the event).

One measure of how successfully we have built today’s cities using the technologies that shaped them over the last century – concrete, steel and the internal combustion engine – is the variation of life expectancy within them. In the UK, people born in the poorest areas of our large cities can expect to live lives that are two decades shorter than those born in the wealthiest areas.

We need to do much better than that as we apply the next generation of technology that will shape our lives – digital technology.

The market for Smart Cities, which many define as the application of digital technology to city systems, is growing. Entrepreneurial businesses such as Droplet and Shutl are delivering new city services, enabled by technology. City Councils, service providers and transport authorities are investing in Smart infrastructures, such as Bradford’s City Park, whose fountains and lights react to the movements of people through it. Our cities are becoming instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, creating new opportunities to improve the performance and efficiency of city systems.

But we are still making three mistakes that limit the scale at which truly innovative Smart City projects are being deployed.

1. We don’t use the right mix of skills to define Smart City initiatives

Over the last year, I’ve seen a much better understanding develop between some of the creative professions in the Smart Cities domain: technologists, design thinkers, social innovators, entrepreneurs and urban designers. Bristol’s “Hello Lamppost” is a good example of a project that uses technology to encourage playful interaction with an urban environment, thereby bringing the life to city streets that the urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ taught us is so fundamental to healthy city communities.

Internationally, cities have a great opportunity to learn from each others’ successes: smart, collective, sustainable urbanism in Scandinavia, as exemplified by Copenhagen’s Nordhavnen district; intelligent city planning and management in Asia and increasingly in the United States, where cities such as Chicago have also championed the open data movement; and the phenomenal level of small-scale, non-institutional innovation in communities in UK cities.

But this debate does not extend to some important institutions that are also beginning to explore how they can contribute towards the social and environmental wellbeing of cities and communities. Banks and investors, for example, who have the funds to support large-scale initiatives, or the skills to access them; or supermarkets and other retailers who operate across cities, nations and continents; but whose operational and economic footprint in cities is significant, and whose supply chains support or contribute to billions of lives.

It’s important to engage with these institutions in defining Smart City initiatives which not only cut across traditional silos of responsibility and budgets in cities, but also cut across the traditional asset classes and revenue streams that investors understand. A Smart City initiative that is crafted without their involvement will be difficult for them to understand, and they will be unlikely to support it. Instead, we need to craft Smart initiatives with them.

(The masterplan for Copenhagen’s regeneration of Nordhavnen, which was co-created with local residents and communities. Photo by Thomas Angermann)

2. We ask researchers to answer the wrong challenges

University research is a great source of new technologies for creating Smart solutions. But our challenge is rarely the availability of new technology – we have plenty of that already.

The real challenge is that we are not nearly exploiting the full potential of the technology already available to us; and that’s because in many cases we do not have a quantified evidence base for the financial, social, economic and environmental benefits of applying technology in city systems. Without that evidence, it’s hard to create a business case to justify investment.

This is the really valuable contribution that research could make to the Smart Cities market today: quantify the benefits of applying technology in city systems and communities; identify the factors that determine the degree to which those benefits can be realised in specific cities and communities; align the benefits to the financial and operating models of the public and private institutions that operate city services and assets; and provide the detailed data from which clear businesses cases with quantified risks and returns can be constructed.

3. We don’t listen to the quiet voices that matter

It’s my experience that the most powerful innovations that make a difference to real lives and communities occur when “little things” and “big things” work well together.

Challenges such as transport congestion, social mobility, responsible energy usage or small business growth are often extremely specific to local contexts. Successful change in those contexts is usually created when the people, community groups and businesses involved create, or co-create, initiatives to improve them.

But often, the resources available locally to those communities are very limited. How can the larger resources of institutional organisations be made available to them?

In “Resilience: why things bounce back“, Andrew Zolli describes many examples of initiatives that have successfully created meaningful change; and characterises the unusual qualities of the “translational leaders” that drive them – people who can engage with both small-scale, informal innovation in communities and large-scale, formal institutions with resources.

It’s my hope that we can enable more widespread changes not by relying only on such rare individuals, but by changing the way that we think about the design of city infrastructures. Rather than designing the services that they deliver, we should design what Service Scientists call the “affordances” they offer. An affordance is a capability of an infrastructure that can be adapted to the needs of an individual.

An example might be a smart grid power infrastructure that provides an open API allowing access to data from the grid. Developers, working together with community groups, could create schemes specific to each community which use that information to encourage more responsible energy usage. My colleagues in IBM Research explored this approach in partnership with the Sustainable Dubuque partnership resulting in a scheme that improved water and energy conservation in the city.

We can also apply this approach to the way that food is supplied to cities. The growing and distribution of food will always be primarily a large-scale, industrial operation: with 7 billion people living on a planet with limited resources, and with more than half of them living in dense cities, there is no realistic alternative. An important challenge for the food production and distribution industry, and for the technology industry, is to find ways to make those systems more efficient and sustainable.

But we can also act locally to change the way that food is processed, prepared and consumed; and in doing so create social capital and economic opportunity in some of the places that need it most. A good example is “Casserole Club“, which uses social media as the basis of a peer-to-peer model which connects people who are unable to cook for themselves with people who are willing to cook for, and visit, others.

These two movements to improve our food systems in innovative ways currently act separately; what new value could we create by bringing them together?

We’re very poor at communicating effectively between such large-scale and small-scale activities. Their cultures are different; they use different languages, and those involved spend their working lives in systems focussed on very different objectives.

There’s a very simple solution. We need to listen more than we talk.

We all have strong opinions and great ideas. And we’re all very capable of quickly identifying the aspects of someone else’s idea that mean it won’t work. For all of those reasons, we tend to talk more than we listen. That’s a mistake; it prevents us from being open to new ideas, and focussing our attention on how we can help them to succeed.

New conversations

By coincidence, I was asked earlier this year to arrange the agenda for the annual meeting of IBM’s UK chapter of our global Academy of Technology. The Academy represents around 500 of IBM’s technology leaders worldwide; and the UK chapter brings 70 or so of our highest achieving technologists together every year to share insights and experience about the technology trends that are most important to our industry, and to our customers.

(Daden's visualisation of the new Library of Birmingham, created before construction started and used to familiarise staff with the new building they would be working in. Taken from Daden's brochure describing the work more fully).

(Daden’s visualisation of the new Library of Birmingham, created before construction started and used to familiarise staff with the new building they would be working in. Taken from Daden’s brochure describing the work more fully).

This year, I’m bringing them to Innovation Birmingham for two days next week to explore how technology is changing Britain’s second city. We’ll be hearing about Birmingham City Council’s Smart City Strategy and Digital Birmingham‘s plans for digital infrastructure; and from research initiatives such as the University of Birmingham’s Liveable Cities programme; Aston University’s European Bio-Energy Research Institute; and Birmingham City University’s European Platform for Intelligent Cities.

But we’ll also be hearing from local SMEs and entrepreneurs creating innovations in city systems using technology, such as Droplet‘s smartphone payment system; 3D visualisation and analytics experts Daden, who created a simulation of Birmingham’s new Library; and Maverick Television whose innovations in using technology to create social value include the programmes Embarrassing Bodies and How to Look Good Naked. And we’ll hear from a number of social innovators, such as Localise West Midlands, a not-for-profit think-tank which promotes localisation for social, environmental and economic benefit, and Hub Launchpad, a business-accelerator for social enterprise who are building their presence in the city. You can follow our discussions next week on twitter through the hashtag #IBM_TCG.

This is just one of the ways I’m trying to make new connections and start new conversations between stakeholders in cities and professionals with the expertise to help them achieve their goals. I’m also arranging to meet some of the banks, retailers and supply-chain operators who seem to be most focussed on social and environmental sustainability, in order to explore how those objectives might align with the interests of the cities in which they operate. The British Standards Institute is undertaking a similar project to explore the financing of Smart Cities as part of their Smart Cities programme. I’m also looking at the examples set by cities such as Almere whose collaborative approach to urban design, augmented by their use of analytics and technology, is inspirational.

This will not be a quick or easy process; but it will involve exciting conversations between people with passion and expertise. Providing we remember to listen as much as we talk, it’s the right place to start.

%d bloggers like this: